I’ve been going in to see my mother every few months and part of my task is to wade through the many papers that my father accumulated. He was a collector in many ways and as he aged it got a bit out of control. I often recognize myself in his collecting and that too is eerie. I read the articles that he clipped from the NY Times seeking to divine who he was and realize that they are exactly what I would focus on as well. In hindsight I recognize a lot of myself in my dad and wish that I had known him better. He always loved when my mom would say, “You’re your father’s daughter” and now I get it.
As the family historian and the financial person in the family, it is especially important that I be the one to go through the information. It is painstaking work, a perfect task for a genealogist who knows that gems may be hidden amongst old junk. I bring to it a curiosity about who my father was and an appreciation of his history as I examine each piece of paper deciding whether to toss, shred, keep or scan. I make my decisions carefully knowing that once something falls into the junk or shred category it is irretrievably lost. As a family historian I find myself keeping documents that address health history, life history and career history. I have found old address books from my parents’ youth and even the early notes from when I began researching family. My father was rather captivated by the idea and got on the phone to his cousins and distant relatives. Many of the things that he learned and shared were there in notes, recorded in his tiny script.
On my second visit I stumbled across a box that contained some items that went into the keep and scan pile and actually gave me great insight into my father. Oddly they spoke to a theme I’ve addressed recently here, the way in which we are shoehorned into career boxes. One yellowed piece of paper was dated 1947 and was when he was at the University of Denver. He went there on the GI Bill after serving in the Navy in WWII. He was 22 years old and had just gotten married earlier that year. He had done some career counseling trying to decide on his career path and the document I found was their report after a wide variety of testing. Listed at the top were three career directions: electrical engineer, high school teacher and social worker. Under special recommendations they noted, “Claimant should make up his mind in the near future as to course he is to pursue” and at the bottom they noted that they had reservations about the objective of electrical engineer because he had only an average Q score. When I looked at his testing it noted he had a superior rating in social service.
So what did my father do with this information? He was not one to let others' reservations get in his way. He in fact became an electrical engineer and a college professor going one step further to found the Department of Electrical Engineering at Bradley University where he was its dean for many years. An eclectic and creative man (a combination that I suspect often goes together), he then started the public television station in Central Illinois, later becoming the dean of a new department of Communications and Fine Arts. My father worked tirelessly to start Channel 47 and he did it with a sense of mission that could only have grown from a deep sense of social service so presciently captured in that early testing.
I have written before of the tendency of the business world to assign us to career boxes when in fact our interests may not be so easily circumscribed. Here was an example of how a creative person with multiple interests was able to incorporate them into his career path. I can picture him thumbing his nose at the career counselors as he took his interests and assembled them into a structure of his own making of which they could never have conceived.